Art and the Digital Fabrication Turn

Catalogue essay commissioned by Fab Lab NI as part of the Future Artist-Makers exhibition and residency program.

In 2011, artist collective fffffat released their Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of adapters for interoperability between 10 proprietary construction toys: Lego®, Duplo®, Fischertechnik®, Gears! Gears! Gears!®, K’Nex®, Krinkles®, Bristle Blocks®, Lincoln Logs®, Tinkertoys®, Zome®, ZomeTool® and Zoob®. The adapters were 3D printed and the designs were offered for free under a creative commons license. The project went beyond a critique of closed systems, offering a do-it-yourself alternative: a hack (and a 3D printed hack at that). The timing of this project coincided with the emergence of one of the first consumer level 3D printers — Makerbot’s Thing-O-Matic — so it rode the wave of early accounts of the promises of such technologies. The Free Universal Construction Kit also helped push and publicise the legal boundaries of digital fabrication for personal use; and spoke to the zeitgeist by inviting participation in the project through designing new adapters for the Kit.

Five years later, digital fabrication continues to promise a lot. Viewers of the Grand Designs TV program dream of bespoke houses precision cut on site by a CNC router. Visitors to the Barcelona Fab Lab imagine a world where they place their coffee grounds and orange peels into a 3D printer to create a cup, which they can drink their coffee from. These scenarios work well as imagined futures (of how this technology might change our lives), but what impact will it really have? And, what are its far-reaching implications?

The Future Artist-Makers program and exhibition provides us with a timely investigation of these themes. More specifically, it illustrates how artistic interventions can help expose the social, environmental, technological, economic entanglements of digital fabrication processes. Commissioned artists and participants have pulled at different threads to expose the assemblages of the digital fabrication turn. Their work offers provocations about the processes, materials, and communities forming around these technologies. The program also helps demystify the artistic experience of digital fabrication. The perception of magic transformation — an alacazam process of bits turning into atoms — is debunked through practice. It is like many other stop-start-try-again material processes. Machines break, materials break, processes need to be revised. But as the illusion of ease is eroded, the affordances of additive and subtractive processes may be revealed, and critical insights may be gleaned.

During this moment, it is helpful to view the digitally fabricated work of the exhibiting artists through the lens of maker culture. Maker culture describes the resurgence of a DIY ethics of production and consumption (so common up until a couple of generations ago) within the contemporary context of the networked society. It celebrates the social aspects of making: sharing, adapting, modding, remixing, and collaborating. Artworks emerging from spaces such as Fab Labs, at this time, are marinated in this social context. However, rhetoric espousing the virtues of maker culture often fails to admit the privileging of certain people and practices.

Considering the artists’ work as part of maker culture is not my attempt to conflate artists and makers. These identities are personal and professional and should be left up to the individual. But the digital fabrication turn is creating a new space for cross-disciplinary activity, as technologies once deemed industrial are used for bespoke purposes by anyone with access and agency. Creative works that use this technology are also riding the coat tails of the intriguing ‘new aesthetic’[1] where the visual vernacular of digital technology increasingly appears in the physical world.[2] The term new aesthetic arose from a design context, but “disregards established divides of creative industries, art practice and theory.”[3] The fabbing land grab is also in its early stages; meaning artistic experimentation is relatively unencumbered with the baggage of tradition or corporate enclosure.

Walter Benjamin’s influential piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) described how the technical reproduction of artworks had led to “the most profound change in their impact upon the public.”[4] He also wrote of how the processes themselves had captured a place of their own among the artistic processes. The mainstreaming of digital fabrication has opened the door for small-scale manufacturing, but the impact of this on art practice and theory remains to be seen. But the combination of new machines, new materials, and new networks are sure to make their mark.

Notes

[1] See Bridle 2011, “The New Aesthetic” http://shorttermmemoryloss.com/portfolio/project/the-new-aesthetic/

[2] See Forlano, “Digital Fabrication and Hybrid Materialities” http://culturedigitally.org/2013/12/digital-fabrication-and-hybrid-materialities/

[3] Berry et. Al, “New Aesthetics New Anxieties” http://v2.nl/files/2012/publishing/new-aesthetic-new-anxieties-pdf/view

[4] Cited in Celani 2007, “Digital fabrication in the arts: just another technical reproduction advance leap or a new artistic revolution?”

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This video was shot, edited and screened at the Transmediale festival 2011 in Berlin, Germany.